A few days after seeing Shane Carruth’s new film Upstream Color, it still seems hard to know where to begin. Carruth was the come-from-nowhere savant, trained as an engineer, who made Primer, perhaps the most realistic and compelling movie about time travel ever imagined, filmed in the suburbs of Dallas on a vanishingly small budget ($7,000).
That was 2004. The densely plotted and lapidary filmic wizardry of Primer suggested an indie filmmaker of great ambition, one who could follow in the steps of Christopher Nolan and Memento and jump from high-concept underground films to “conglomerate-backed mall-magnets, another Bryan Singer or Darren Aronofsky,” as Wired recently put it.
But Carruth seemed to disappear for years, until rumors surfaced in late 2012 that he would come back with a new film—possibly 3.5 hours long, possibly two-films-in-one, and possibly with no shot longer than one second. Such outlandish rumors don’t even come close to the weirdness of the end product.
Upstream Color is the touching story of a transspecies organism/parasite that somehow perpetuates itself by passing from maggot to human to pig to orchid (and back again), with the apparent help of small-time conmen and weirdo sound engineer-cum-farmers who implant the life form in unsuspecting victims. If that seems reasonable or makes some kind of plausible sense to you, you’re in for a treat. To the extent that there’s a plot, the main character Kris (Amy Seimetz) is drugged and force-fed the maggot/life-form outside a bar one night, after which she is taken advantage of by a crook who exploits her addled state to extort a large amount of money, tselling the impressionable Kris that her mother is being held hostage and needs cash. Kris eventually snaps out of her delirium and realizes a hideous worm is coursing through her body; she tries to cut it out in a gruesome scene, and she is eventually drawn to a farm where a mysterious man, listed in the credits as “the Sampler,” conducts a bizarre operation to remove the invasive species and, it seems, transfer it to a pig.
Throughout the rest of the film, the Sampler is seen looking after a group of pigs, while conducting strange experiments with sound recording and seemingly putting out records on his own label, Quinoa Valley (yes). The experiences of the pigs seem to correspond with the individuals they are (biologically?) linked to, including Jeff, an ambiguous character who attempts to befriend Kris on a train and appears to share her own traumatic, unexplainable experience.
Both of them have lost relationships and jobs and money due to the interlude they experienced with the organism, and they both remain scarred. Jeff sits and unwraps straws and makes links out of them. Kris tapes together rings of paper, and swims to collect rocks from the bottom of a pool while reciting passages from Walden.
If this sounds disjointed and incoherent, that’s because it is. Carruth’s film does not necessarily pursue the byzantine path of agency and causation that distinguished the mind-bending plot of Primer; instead, Upstream Color is far more imagistic and impressionistic, implying relationships and insinuating cause-and-effect with a dark and foreboding series of shots that almost echo Chris Marker’s La Jetee in their frozen, austere, and emotionless character, virtually a flow of discrete moments.
This works in some ways—indie veteran Amy Seimetz conveys vulnerability, paranoia, and a hunted, haunted look in a rich way as Kris. Shane Carruth, playing Jeff, seems wooden and awkward by comparison, revealing his limitations as an actor more so here than in Primer, where he captured the engineer/tinkerer descending into madness well. Actually, Upstream Color seems like the deranged work of the kind of madman Carruth’s character was becoming by the end of Primer, suggesting an unwitting continuity between the two films—someone who could work on a bigger scale and pursue whatever insane visions he pleased.
Carruth has become anything but a Hollywood prima donna, of course. As an iconoclast, he recognized early on that LA had little interest in avant garde fare like Primer and Upstream Color, and he has maintained an extreme authorial control over his new film (writing, directing, starring, producing, composing, co-editing, and even managing its distribution—to art houses and festivals, as well as an immediate release online through iTunes and Amazon and the like—a path more and more independent filmmakers are taking to find their audiences—the recent Shining exegesis Room 237 was released in much the same way).
Such unbridled and unalloyed control can give license to genius, but it can also indulge excess. We’ve become far too familiar with filmmakers like M. Night Shyamalan and Woody Allen who can follow their creative muse without any editorial interference getting in the way, with the result being lazy, pompous and uninspired work. Whatever one might say about Upstream Color—that it’s unbearably pretentious, obtuse, and inaccessible, for instance—one cannot call it lazy or uninspired.
In fact, the film may take viewers down a path of high-art, high-concept ambitiousness—there are lots of scenes of actors staring pensively, meaningfully off into the distance, enough to make me and several other patrons laugh at the self-serious ponderousness of the film—but there is also something about it that is so evocative and so invasive that it worms its way into your brain, not unlike the maggoty organism that somehow spans the life cycle of the humans, pigs, and orchids. There is beautiful symmetry to be found in the images of paper chains, flowers, microorganisms, leaves, trees, birds, and hands that convey something far bigger and more subtle than just a relatonship of parasitism shared among various people, plants, and animals—as if all of these forms of life are united by some ineffable (and inexorable) logic that perpetuates itself beyond the will or awareness of individual beings themselves. It is something quite like the life force that made inert clusters of amino acids interact and replicate lo these many billion years ago, except that it is couched in a gonzo sci-fi/thriller/existential art film about a parasitic life force that transfers itself from human to pig to flower to maggot over the course of its unending life cycle. As the film’s awkwardly worded tagline suggests, there is a battle going on between agency and structure, between fate and identity that any historian can appreciate: “You can force your story’s shape, but the color will always bloom.”
In all its austere beauty, daunting incomprehensibility, and ominous depiction of addiction, mental illness, and heartbreak, Upstream Color actually reminds one of the hokey pop chaos-theory of Jurassic Park. As Dr. Ian Malcolm (the template for an entire generation of aspiring hipster-academics) once said, “Life will find a way.” In Upstream Color, the way it finds is dark, sinister, beautiful, harrowing, and persistently unsettling. Carruth could have followed his minor indie success and cult stardom with a volley against the mainstream, like Rian Johnson’s underrated action-sci-fi-time-travel effort Looper, but he decided to use his newfound notoriety and limited capital to do something much bigger, much weirder, and much riskier. The thing about risk is that the payoff is not guaranteed, by definition, but Carruth has definitely risked more and possibly gained more by making this ambitious and bizarre film.
Other coverage of Upstream Color:
Dylan Schwan, “Love, Nature, and ‘Walden,’ Welcome to Upstream Color,” Independent Cinema
Daniel D’Addario, “Everything You Want to Know about ‘Upstream Color,’” Salon
Andrew O’Hehir, “Pick of the Week: The Year’s Most Divisive Wannabe Cult Hit,” Salon
Brian Raftery, “Buckle Your Brainpan: The Primer Director Is Back with a New Film,” Wired
Reviews at Rotten Tomatoes
Jim Emerson’s review at RogerEbert.com
Dr. Mathochist’s review